There are many different ways to think of the religious significance of wearing a mask during COVID-19. One could file mask-wearing in the category of Mitzvot we perform towards our fellow human being (such as “Ve-Ahavta Le-Reiacha Ka-Moecha,” “Love your neighbor like yourself”), because by wearing masks we keep others safe. Or, one could consider it a Mitzvah we perform towards our Creator, as safeguarding our health and safety is a Mitzvah that we owe towards G-d.
Yet, for me there is an additional religious dimension to wearing a mask which has recently become apparent to me as I study Messechet Ta’anit this summer. Our congregation has been studying a half-Mishnah each morning from the particularly apropos Tractate about Judaism’s response to tragedy and calamity, and one of the Mishnayot therein grants new significance to mask wearing.
Massechet Ta’anit outlines a series of responses that the Jewish people take to serious military, economic, or health challenges; it details how prayer and fasting are ways to process what happens through a religious lens and beseech Divine mercy and aid. Much of the Tractate would have seemed so utterly foreign but a few months ago and now resonates deeply: Taking the Torah out of the Sanctuary and davening in the City Courtyard (15a), epidemiological statistics for plague and pandemic (19a), hoarding behavior and price surges (10a), rabbis trying to determine priorities when tackling famine and illness at the same time (8b).
(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Rabbi Jaffe’s community, Maimonides Minyan in Brookline, Massachusetts, was part of the program).